Bill Tosheff: NBA Co-Rookie of the Year and Tireless Advocate for the "Pre-1965ers" (Part II)Bill Tosheff's life story reads like an improbable movie script: four sport star in high school, member of a B-17 bomber crew in World War II, baseball and basketball teammate of future baseball Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn while both did military service in Alaska, captain of Indiana University's 19-3 basketball team in 1951, member of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, NBA co-Rookie of the Year in 1951-52 and minor league baseball pitcher who rubbed shoulders with Fidel Castro and Ernest Hemingway. Those accomplishments and experiences are special but for the past two decades Tosheff has been involved in a project that is even more meaningful because it has enabled him to increase the quality of life of many of the players who laid the foundation for the modern NBA: Tosheff has been a relentless advocate fighting for the pension rights of retired NBA players, particularly the players who were arbitrarily excluded from the league's pension program because their careers ended prior to 1965. Tosheff has spent more than $150,000 of his own money and devoted countless hours to writing letters, making calls and testifying before Congress in order to cajole, shame and persuade the NBA to do what it should have done in the first place of its own volition: set aside a comparatively small amount of money to help out the pioneers who literally created the league and made it possible for today's commissioner, league executives, coaches and players to become fabulously wealthy. Tosheff never minced words or backed down and he repeatedly has said that the NBA delayed dealing with this issue for a simple, ghoulish reason: "Death cures a lot of things." Tosheff was originally fighting for the rights of about 85 players; more than half of the members of that group are now deceased. In 2007, Tosheff's efforts paid off when the NBA finally expanded its pension program to include the "Pre-1965ers."
Tosheff is currently battling to get official recognition for the NBA's first five Rookies of the Year (Paul Hoffman in 1948, Howie Shannon in 1949, Alex Groza in 1950, Paul Arizin in 1951 and Bill Tosheff/Mel Hutchins in 1952). The league stubbornly insists that the Rookie of the Year award was not formally "sanctioned" until 1953, but Tosheff has documentation proving that he and the other early Rookie of the Year winners were recognized as such during that time and should be included in the Official NBA Guide.
This year, the NBA made a gesture of reconciliation toward Tosheff by inviting him and several guests (including family members and some of the other "Pre-1965ers") to an expenses-paid trip to All-Star Weekend in Phoenix. The league provided a suite at U.S. Airways Center for Tosheff and his group to watch the All-Star Game. I met Tosheff for the first time at this year's Legends Brunch and he invited me to watch the game with him from his suite. We talked a bit about his playing career and his long battle for the rights of the "Pre-1965ers" and I told him that I wanted to arrange an interview so that we could discuss these subjects at greater length. I spoke with Tosheff recently and learned more about his life, his multi-sport career and his advocacy for the "Pre-1965ers."
Part I focused on the "Pre-1965ers," Tosheff's World War II experiences and his Indiana University basketball career; Part II discusses Tosheff's ongoing fight to gain official recognition for the NBA's early Rookies of the Year, his minor league baseball experiences in Cuba with Ernest Hemingway and Fidel Castro and what Tosheff thinks of the modern NBA game:
1951-52 NBA Co-Rookie of the Year
Friedman: "You were the 1951-52 NBA co-Rookie of the Year. Nowadays the voting is done by the media. Who selected the Rookie of the Year when you won? Was the voting done by the media or by the players? Also, why doesn't the NBA 'officially' acknowledge the Rookie of the Year winners prior to 1953, when Don Meineke won the award?"
Tosheff: "If you go back and look at the second edition of the NBA Encyclopedia, you will find that all of us (pre-1953 Rookie of the Year award winners) are in there. That is a very unusual thing. I am talking right now to Joel Litvin, the attorney for the NBA, about this very situation. I kind of had let it lie for a while. The (Rookie of the Year) voting had been done by the newspaper guys back East. After the 1951-52 NBA season was over, we had a big party and (Indianapolis Olympians) Coach Herm Schaefer presented me with a ring and said that I had been selected as the co-Rookie of the Year, with Mel Hutchins. Then I went on to baseball spring training, because I was playing both sports--six months NBA, six months pro baseball.
What happened was, when the National Basketball League was formed in 1937 it lasted for nine years (before) the BAA (Basketball Association of America) came in with Maurice Podoloff as the commissioner (in 1946). He wanted to fill the dark hockey arenas back East with basketball. That is how the BAA started, so now you had a rivalry between the BAA and the NBL, raiding each other for players until they merged in 1949, becoming the NBA. Well, the first Rookie of the Year was not in 1946 but in 1947-48, Paul Hoffman. Then came a guy named Howie Shannon (1948-49, Providence Steamrollers). Then there was Alex Groza (1949-50, Indianapolis Olympians), in the first year that the NBA was formed. Paul Arizin (1950-51, Philadelphia Warriors) won it the next year and then (in 1951-52) Mel Hutchins (Milwaukee Hawks) and I were the first co-Rookies of the Year. So, all of us were put in the 1994-95 Official NBA Guide (Note: I own a copy of that book and a copy of each of the subsequent editions and I can confirm that what Tosheff says is true; the 1948-52 RoYs were listed in the 1995 edition and then were not listed after that). The next year, that listing disappeared and I wondered what the hell was going on. So I called up this guy named Jan Hubbard and he said that those awards weren't 'sanctioned.' I asked him what kind of 'sanction' he wanted.
I maintain that we deserve to be in there and that is what I am working on right now. They brought Meineke in from 1953 (as the first 'official' Rookie of the Year) and he always teases me about that. But, I've got documentation in the form of a letter from Alex Sachare, who was the VP of history for the NBA. He sent me a personal letter that indicated that according to his research all of us were Rookies of the Year. I called him about this and asked him to jump in because he is the one whose research proved that we are all 'official,' but he did not want to get involved because he is doing part time work for the NBA and does not want to upset the apple cart. I just sent a long letter to Joel Litvin about this."
(Here is part of the text of Tosheff's letter to Litvin, as narrated to me by Tosheff:
"I have a running issue for years with the historical department of the NBA regarding the Rookies of the Year. Alex Sachare wrote me a letter dated July 26, 1994. He was then Vice President/Editorial for the NBA. This is what he wrote:
'Dear Mr. Tosheff, I just want to let you know that you and Mel Hutchins will be listed as co-winners of the NBA's Rookie of the Year award for the 1951-52 season in two upcoming publications: the 1995 Official NBA Guide to be published by the Sporting News in October and the second edition of the Official NBA Basketball Encyclopedia to be published by Villard Books in November. Following your letter and phone calls, I had a historical researcher verify early award winners and he verified not only that you shared the award in 1951-52 but also the winners for the four years prior to that as well: Paul Hoffman (1947-48), Howie Shannon (1948-49), Alex Groza (1949-50), Paul Arizin (1950-51). This information will be included in both books so our list will extend back five years further than before. Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I am glad that we are able to restore another piece of NBA history. Sincerely, Alex Sachare, VP.'
I wrote Alex back and thanked him for his work. The next thing I saw was that in the following year all of our names were omitted from the NBA Media Guide. I immediately called Jan Hubbard and discussed our status. He confirmed that he would once again reinsert our names. I asked that he message me by letter stating that he would do so but he declined to write me the letter of confirmation and simply let things lay. I have all of the facts relative to this situation--letters included--and I ask if you will review something that should have remained...I will not rest at age 82 until proper credit is given to those who are deserving.")
Friedman: "I don't understand why the NBA does some of the things that they do. A whole other issue that does not affect you is why don't they count ABA statistics?"
Tosheff: "That's true. Let me tell you about another one: What about the ABL (statistics)? A lot of the guys who played in the NBA played in the ABL. It is because it (the ABL) was a controversial thing that started way back (in 1961) with Abe Saperstein. The NBA didn't like that because he departed from the norm.
Jan Hubbard, who is no longer employed by the NBA, made 46 mistakes a couple years ago and they fired him. That tells you a little bit."
Friedman: "He made 46 mistakes in the NBA Encyclopedia?"
Tosheff: "Yeah, with historical stuff. That's what I heard."
Friedman: "The NBA should list the names of those Rookie of the Year winners. Even if they feel like they have to accompany the list with some explanation about 'official' versus 'unofficial'--I'm not sure if you would like that or not--but there is no reason not to list the names."
Tosheff: "That's true. The Indianapolis Times wrote--before this all happened (with the players being listed in the 1995 NBA Guide and then removed the next year)--that if Bill Tosheff is not the co-Rookie of the Year then that title has lost its meaning. A lot of writers have said that--New York writers and so forth--because they know I was pretty damn good my rookie year."
Friedman: "When I first met you, you showed me a ring. Was that your Rookie of the Year ring?"
Tosheff: "Yes, it was. It was given to me by (Indianapolis Olympians Coach) Herm Schaefer that night at the (end of the season) party when I was told that I was Rookie of the Year. It was not given by the NBA but it was given by our team owners. The interesting thing is that after I woke up the next day after our party my ring was missing. I didn't know what the hell had happened to the ring, because we had been drinking a little bit. So I just let it go. Thirty seven years later, I got a letter in the mail with a little box. It said, 'Tosh, sit down you are not going to believe what you are going to read.' It was written by a little gal named Sandy. It said that her Mom had died, her Dad had died, her dog had died and so she and her husband were redoing their house. I had rented a room there on the second floor (decades ago). When they took the vents off in the basement to redo the furnace setup, they heard a clank on the floor. A worker picked up the ring and gave it to her. She cleaned it up and on one side it said 'William Tosheff Indianapolis Olympians' and on the other side it said 'Rookie of the Year 1952.' That ring sat down there for 37 years."
Friedman: "Your Rookie of the Year ring was missing for 37 years?"
Tosheff: "Yep. Thirty seven years. She took it to a jeweler who refaced it and added the NBA logo that came into effect in 1975, which was Jerry West."
Friedman: "That's amazing, that your ring turned up after such a long time."
Tosheff: "Yeah, she was 11 years old at that time."
Friedman: "You ranked first or second on your team in assists in each of your three NBA seasons and you twice ranked in the top ten in the NBA in free throw percentage. Why did you only play in the NBA for three seasons?"
Tosheff: "Very simple--I played for a guy who I didn't like. Indianapolis folded after the point shaving scandal (regarding the actions of Ralph Beard and Alex Groza when they had played at the University of Kentucky) because we lost our stars Beard and Groza; if we had had those guys we would have won the NBA championship, because we had been kicking everyone's butt in the exhibition season. After our team disbanded, Milwaukee picked me up. The Milwaukee Hawks (who later became the St. Louis Hawks and are currently known as the Atlanta Hawks) were owned by Ben Kerner, who had 19 different coaches during his career as an owner in the NBA. To me, he was a real snake and very tough to work with. After the 1953-54 season (Tosheff's first year with the Hawks), when I came in to sign my contract after playing summer baseball he tried to cut (my salary) so I said, 'Give me your pen' and I signed it and then I said 'Put me on the voluntarily retired list.' Why? I'd already been in the military, I'd already received my college degree and I'd already played at a top level in the NBA. How was I going to get out of my chair at 50 years old? And for this kind of money? It's not worth it; I made that decision. He said, 'You need me,' but three days later I was in South America playing winter baseball in Cartagena, Colombia. For three months, I almost cried every day because I missed it (playing in the NBA) but I knew that I had made a good move. I'm 82 years old and if you look at the older guys (who had long NBA careers), they are all beat up."
Encountering Hemingway, Castro While Playing Minor League Baseball
Friedman: "I understand that when you played in the Florida International League you met Ernest Hemingway and Fidel Casto."
Tosheff: "That's right. When I signed to play Triple A baseball with the Indianapolis Indians in 1952, my roommate was Herb Score. We lived together in an apartment. I played for them for one year and I opened up something like a little Dairy Queen store in Indianapolis to have a little fun. Then I got a call from (the) Milwaukee (Braves); they wanted me to go to Florida because they needed a pitcher for their Tampa team. I asked which teams were playing down there and they said Miami, Miami Beach, Jacksonville, St. Petersburg, Tampa and Havana, Cuba. I said, 'Cuba?' and they said 'Yes' and I said, 'I coming.' I gave my (Dairy Queen-like) business to my next door neighbor and told him to take care of it, jumped in my convertible with my dog and drove to Tampa.
We went to Cuba four or five times. I met Castro, who was studying to become a lawyer. He was a good baseball player. We played catch. He used to be at all of the games. We'd go down there for a four game series. By happenstance, I walked by the old plaza in Havana and there was a bar there called The Crystal Bar. I saw this white haired guy with a bunch of prostitutes hanging around him, calling him 'Papa.' He looked familiar. So I walked in and asked if he wanted a couple tickets to the baseball game that night. He kind of gruffly said, 'Ahh, sit down and have a taste with me.' He bought me a vodka; that is what he was drinking. I had a little taste of vodka. That was Hemingway."
Friedman: "Did you have a lengthy interaction with him or a conversation with him?"
Tosheff: "We talked a little bit and he came to the game that night. He loved the bull fights."
Friedman: "Was he really interested in baseball as well?"
Tosheff: "He was really interested in sports. I don't know if he was sober or not. I think that he worked all night long and drank all day."
Friedman: "Was Castro playing in the baseball league or he was just in the area?"
Tosheff: "No, no, he was just one of the guys who came to watch the games, a spectator who came there and we all kind of palled around together. There were four Cuban teams. We came in from the Florida International League to play these different teams."
An Expenses Paid Trip to All-Star Weekend, Comparing the NBA Then and Now
The NBA provided Tosheff, his family and several other guests an expenses-paid trip to All-Star Weekend and the opportunity to watch the game from a suite in U.S. Airways Arena. That does not make up for snubbing the "Pre-1965 Players" for so long but it still was a nice gesture by the league. I finished the interview by asking Tosheff about his 2009 NBA All-Star Weekend experience and the differences between the NBA today compared to when he played.
Friedman: "I know that the NBA paid to bring you and your whole family to All-Star Weekend. Had you been to All-Star Weekend before, particularly in recent years when it became such an extravaganza? Also, what was the whole experience like for you? I know that you were introduced at the Legends Brunch and made some other appearances, so what did you take away from the whole experience?"
Tosheff: "I was at the Vegas All-Star Weekend (2007). That is when they announced our pension, at the Legends Brunch that year.
What it (going to the 2009 All-Star Weekend in Phoenix) did for me is like putting the ice cream on top of the pie or the frosting on the cake. It was a lot of work; I have so many files and I have to go through them and get rid of some of them.
But, I used to email Mark Cuban a lot and one of his comments to me one time was, 'Well, if you are fighting for the three and four year guys what about the one and two year guys?' I said, 'What about them? In baseball if you go up to bat one time you are vested in the pension.' I used to have dialogue with him and he did not even know what my group was about. He never knew a damn thing about it. A lot of guys don't."
Friedman: "So, when he said that he was not encouraging you to fight for those one and two year guys; he was saying if the NBA includes the three and four year guys then where does it end? He was being critical of you."
Tosheff: "Yeah, I think so."
Friedman: "You played in the NBA and you obviously still follow the league to some extent. How has the NBA changed from when you were a player to what you see today and what do you think of today's game in general? Are there certain players or teams that you particularly like?"
Tosheff: "I respect greatly today's players. They are awesome athletes. They are very quick and the advent of the slam dunk has led to a lot of hype. I still champion the old school guys, the 'short pants guys' as I call them.
I just don't like to see the section in the sports pages called sports in the courts. Someone is always getting in trouble. I mean, Barkley's going to jail. That's crazy. We never had that kind of problem, except for the (college) point shaving scandal (in 1951). That was a bad deal.
I really appreciate watching today's players but everything is basically pick and roll and we started that a long time ago."
Friedman: "Is there a certain player or a certain team who you like to follow now?"
Tosheff: "I think LeBron James is awesome. I love Chris Paul. I'm a little guy and Chris Paul is pretty awesome with what he can do. There are a lot of good little guys out there. They're all good players but look at what they do now: they can carry the ball, while we had to have our hand on top of the ball. That makes a big difference. We never dribbled between our legs. Once in a while we'd pass behind our back. There was no slam dunk and we didn't have the 24 second clock."
Friedman: "I know that the dunk was banned for a period of time in college but the NBA never banned dunking; in your era wasn't dunking considered to be showing up your opponent and if you dunked then you would be undercut?"
Tosheff: "That was the mindset. In college ball, even in practice or warmups it was considered a technical foul if you slam dunked the ball."
Friedman: "I've seen this old tape of the Minneapolis Lakers--maybe it was just a promotional film or something--and most of the guys could dunk. I know that some people are under the mistaken impression that players from your era could not dunk."
Tosheff: "I could dunk. I could get two hands over the rim (at 6-1)."
Friedman: "People have this mistaken perception that players back in the day could not dunk."
Tosheff: "Most of the big guys, like Chamberlain or Lovellette, would finger roll the ball over the rim."
Friedman: "At some point, things changed. I know that Chamberlain had the finger roll but at some point he was dunking with regularity. My understanding is that things changed with him. Prior to Chamberlain, dunking in games was considered taboo or showboating but then Chamberlain started to do it and no one was really going to undercut him or mess with him."
(Terry Pluto's book Tall Tales has several interesting anecdotes about dunking in the NBA in the 1950s and 1960s. On page 16, Pluto wrote:
"As for dunking in games, if you were of sane mind you just didn't do it. 'Not unless you wanted to risk having someone tear your head off and hand it to you on the next play. Today it's showtime. Back then, it was showing a guy up,' said Alex Hannum, who started his long pro career in 1948."
Slater Martin told Pluto (p. 128), "(Bill) Russell was the first player to dunk regularly; he did it off lob passes from Cousy and he did it with little flamboyance. He just caught the ball and dunked it, no big deal, and we accepted that because it was Bill's shot. There was no finger pointing or talking like you see today. We didn't consider the dunk a skilled shot. If you could jump high, then you could throw the ball through the rim. So what?"
Oscar Robertson said to Pluto (p. 193), "I could dunk, dribble around my back and all that flashy stuff. I dunked once in high school and my coach got all over me, so I never did it again. Dunking is overrated, a showboat play. All the stars in my era could dunk, but we saw no reason to do it. We had too much respect for each other to try and dunk in each other's face."
In a later era, Julius Erving turned the dunk into an art form but he never finger pointed or showed anyone up and he always valued substance over style; he explained many times that to some people the dunk may seem like a flashy shot but he simply considered it to be a very high percentage shot and one that was not difficult for him because of his big hands and superior jumping ability. As Dick DeVenzio wrote about Erving on page 120 of his book Stuff Good Players Should Know, "He makes a lot of great plays. But his value, even more important to his team than all those spectacular dunks, is that he doesn't miss many dunks. He is consistent. On the plays where a spectacular dunk has a good chance of missing, Dr. J 'happens' not to try it at all. 'AH,' say the fans, 'he should've dunked that one.' But he doesn't dunk every chance he gets. He dunks the ones he can dunk and he doesn't attempt the ones he can not."
Red Auerbach called the dunk "the highest percentage shot in basketball" in this classic video, during which Erving emphasized that he always focused on "result first, then the effect is secondary.")
Tosheff: "If you research a little further back, you'll find out that one guy who really hyped the idea of the slam dunk and the 12 foot basket was Phog Allen. We played one game with a 12 foot basket in Minneapolis against Minneapolis during the 1953-54 season."
Friedman: "What did you think of that experiment? Dwight Howard just dunked on a 12 foot basket."
Tosheff: "I was sore in my chest and shoulders the next day. George Mikan missed his first 12 shots."
Friedman: "People have talked about raising the rim. Do you think that would be good for the game?"
Tosheff: "I think that people would get hurt. I think that with the way that they blow in there and dunk, all they'd have to do is step on somebody and that ankle is gone. What I'd really like to see is for one night in the league no one is allowed to slam dunk. See what happens."
Friedman: "I think that John Wooden has said that he would make the dunk worth one point instead of two."
Tosheff: "Good idea."
Friedman: "I don't think that will ever happen but it would be interesting to see."
Tosheff: "I think that we are getting closer to the international rules with the 19 foot lane. After all, it was because of Wilt Chamberlain that they widened the lane in the first place; in the early days, the lane was just six feet wide."
Further reading about Bill Tosheff and the "Pre-1965 Players":
Transcript of 1998 Congressional Hearing About Pension Fairness for NBA Pioneers
The Plight of the Pre-Pension Players
For years, about 85 elderly ex-players have been fighting to get NBA pensions. The response from the league and the union: Drop dead. Half of them have (June 28, 2005 Salon.com article by King Kaufman)
Give This Man an Assist (July 20, 2005 Boston Globe article by Peter May)
XNBA (official website for the "Pre-1965 Players")
posted by David Friedman @ 5:20 AM